There are several reasons I link these two films together. Both are acclaimed productions which have already garnered awards. While both films have been nominated for Best Picture in the 2013 Academy Awards, both directors, Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck have been snubbed in the Best Director category. The reason I do not want to speculate. But for one of them, I have a hunch.
These are very American films, depicting Americans in crisis and its aftermath. Argo is about getting Americans out of Iran during 1979-80 hostage crisis in Tehran, Zero Dark Thirty (ZD30) about hunting and getting into Pakistan to assassinate Osama bin Laden. Both involve the intricate work of the CIA.
And, both have driven me to the edge of my seat, despite the fact that I know the ending of the event they portray. This is the power of visual storytelling. But for me, the similarities may well end here.
Argo rests on one man, Tony Mendez, a CIA officer who masterminded the rescue mission, information declassified only in recent years. Played by director Ben Affleck, Mendez is decorated with CIA’s Intelligence Star and received other accolades after that.
ZD30 rests on one woman, known only as Maya in the film. A young CIA officer who for ten years, dedicated her life to the searching for Osama bin Laden. She is relentless in her pursuit, fighting not only outward threats of physical dangers but bureaucracy within an alpha male work environment. Her identity remains hidden.
Jessica Chastain has once again shown how versatile an actor she is. I have seen her in some very different roles: The Debt, The Tree of Life, Take Shelter, The Help. Here in ZD30, she has convincingly portrayed a strong leading female character with finesse. Her performance not only carries the film but our emotion as well.
And not only Maya, ZD30 has shown us there are other female CIA officers taking up perilous duties. Her friend and colleague Jessica is one of them. Now, as I watched this Jessica on screen, I kept thinking she looked so familiar. Only when I watched the credits roll at the end did I find out, lo, that’s Jennifer Ehle, Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice, 1995) or a bit closer, Myrtle Logue in The King’s Speech (2010).
Director Kathryn Bigelow has done an exceptional job in turning Mark Boal’s original screenplay into a tight and engrossing film. Both won Oscars for The Hurt Locker (2008), Bigelow being the first woman to win the Best Director award. At the beginning of the film, we are told it is based on firsthand accounts of actual events. Despite knowing the ending, I was still captivated every step of the way, following the intelligence gathering process, the narrowing down of leads and locations, the red tape. The film is an alchemy of facts and fiction, a creative fusion. But for the audience, there is no way to distinguish which is which.
That leads to the controversial issue, one that some in Washington and now the Academy have condemned, the issue of torture. And here’s my take. Isn’t it a bit simplistic to argue that since the film depicts scenes of torture of detainees to get leads and information, it means that the filmmakers condone or even promote torture?
Further, no torture tactics used in the immediate hunt down of bin Laden does not mean the total absence of it over the ten year post 9/11 period. The photos from Abu Ghraib prison are still vivid in my mind. None of the scenes in the film can compare to those real life photos. Or, come to think of it, could Abu Ghraib have informed the screenwriting? This being not a documentary, but a dramatized fusion, can one separate facts and fiction so clearly?
Or take Argo, how much is true about the rescue mission? How much is dramatized? What proportion should we give credits to the mastermind Mendez and the CIA, and how much should we credit the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) for hiding the six American embassy staff in his home at his own risk? The same kind of simplistic accusation ZD30 is getting could also apply here: Does the fact that they all escaped Iran using false identity mean the filmmakers, or the Canadian government for that matter, promote deception and the forging of Canadian passports?
Unlike Argo, the ending is not celebratory in ZD30. Things are not as clean cut as planned. The final mission of assassination is messy, a helicopter is down and has to be destroyed on site. There are collateral damages. But the target is hit, mission accomplished. Nevertheless, there is no applause or celebration. The tone is sombre, which I think is most apt. The final scene with Maya alone on the large transport plane leaving Pakistan is the epitome of ambivalence. And Jessica Chastain leaves us with a poignant expression. Is it justice, national security, or rather, personal vendetta that has been accomplished? The last line delivered by the pilot echoed in my mind after I’d left the theatre, dazed… Where do we want to go from here?
Zero Dark Thirty ~~~~ Ripples
Argo ~~~1/2 Ripples
Golden Globes, Jan. 13, 2013: Argo won Best Picture, Drama, and Ben Affleck Best Director. Jessica Chastain won Best Actress, Drama, for Zero Dark Thirty.
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